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Elect 2012: Much at stake, but little voter interest in Council of State primaries

By Emery P. Dalesio
Associated Press
RALEIGH — North Carolina voters pick the statewide officials responsible for protecting public employee pensions, ensuring safe workplaces, balancing insurance company profits with consumer costs and birddogging where state money goes and how it’s spent.
But though their roles shape the functioning of the state’s economy, candidates for six statewide Council of State offices facing primary elections know the contests stir little voter interest.
Attorney General Roy Cooper faces no challengers in the primary or general elections and is assured a fourth four-year term.
But there is at least one party primary for each of six other offices: secretary of state, auditor, labor commissioner, treasurer, agriculture commissioner and insurance commissioner. The primary is May 8.
In the secretary of state’s contest, Democratic incumbent Elaine Marshall has since 1997 held the job responsible for duties such as enforcing ethics rules, overseeing legislative lobbyists, investigating securities fraud and cracking down on copyright infringement.
“The secretary of state should be about the business of doing business,” said Kenn Gardner, one of four Republicans seeking the GOP nomination. Gardner, 54, of Raleigh, is a former Wake County commissioner and an architect.
Mike Beitler of Oak Ridge is an ex-banking executive and former business professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 2010 he and Marshall tried to unseat U.S. Sen. Richard Burr — Marshall as a Democrat and Beitler as the Libertarian candidate. Beitler said then that he switched from Republican to Libertarian because he felt the GOP was too beholden to the religious right and failed to keep spending in check in the early 2000s. Burr won re-election.
A.J. Daoud is a Pilot Mountain funeral home owner who wants the state to require that corporations annually renewing their status provide proof that all employees are legal citizens.
Ed Goodwin, 59, of Edenton is a Chowan County commissioner and farmer with a military background including work as a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent.
Marshall avoided a Democratic primary opponent.
First-term State Auditor Beth Wood also faces no Democratic primary challenge. She will face one of five Republicans vying for their party’s nomination for the post, which tracks how the state’s money is spent and holds inefficiency or waste accountable.
The Republicans include Rudy Wright, Hickory’s mayor since 2001. He owns a sign shop and is a former accountant and business consultant.
Joseph Hank DeBragga, 57, of Oriental is an internal audit manager at the state Department of Environment & Natural Resources. He previously worked in accounting and finance posts in a series of rural hospitals in North Carolina and other states.
Greg Dority is a former security company director who lives in the coastal city of Washington. Two years ago, he ran against Democratic U.S. Rep. Mel Watt in the 12th Congressional District, which stretches along Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Greensboro. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2008 and for Congress from eastern North Carolina in 2004 and 2002.
Debra Goldman of Cary is trying to parlay a seat on the largest school district’s board of education into higher office. The Wake County school board shifted from Republican to a Democratic majority in the 2011 elections. Elected in 2009, Goldman was part of the GOP majority that uprooted a previous student assignment policy that placed greater emphasis on racial and economic diversity.
Fern Shubert is an accountant who represented Union County for three terms in the House and one in the Senate before running unsuccessfully for governor in 2004. The outspoken Shubert has long campaigned against illegal immigration, and she stumped against state spending and debts before the Tea Party gave the issue its current force.
The labor commissioner is responsible for protecting the safety of the state’s 4 million-plus workers. Republican Cherie Berry has served since 2001 and has no primary opponent.
The three Democrats vying to challenge Berry include John Brooks, who was commissioner from 1977 to 1993. In 1991, he fined a Hamlet chicken-processing plant more than $800,000 — the largest such penalty in state history — after saying the company’s safety violations contributed to a fire that killed 25 workers in 1990.
Ty Richardson of Middlesex ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for labor commissioner in 2008. Beyond workplace safety, he advocates business accountability standards and a worker’s bill of rights that includes requiring businesses to pay a fair wage.
Marlowe Foster of Raleigh has been a state lobbyist for drug maker Pfizer and previously represented health insurance companies. He said he would promote “fairness and transparency” in workplace safety inspections as well as “be a partner to business to help them achieve what they naturally want, a family-centered work environment.”
North Carolina’s treasurer oversees public employee pension funds valued at about $72 billion. Democratic incumbent Janet Cowell of Raleigh worked as a business consultant and served as a state senator before winning a close election in 2008. The pension fund returned 2 percent last year, a low return that Cowell blamed on stock market jitters brought on by Middle East conflicts, the European debt crisis and the first downgrade of U.S. bonds in history.
Cowell faces a primary challenge from investment manager and accountant Ron Elmer of Cary. He previously worked for a Durham firm that invested money for states and big corporations, and before that researched investments for banks. He said his experience would help him earn better investment returns than Cowell has achieved.
Frank Roche of Cary and Steve Royal of Elkin are facing off on the Republican side. Roche unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for a congressional seat in the Raleigh area in 2010. Royal ran in 1990 in the Republican primary for a congressional seat.
Roche, 48, is a former foreign currency trader who sees the treasurer’s role as a voice against state government debt and for reduced regulation of North Carolina banks.
Steve Royal, 61, is an accountant with his own practice. He also is concerned about the state’s debt, focusing on the $2.5 billion borrowed from Washington to keep unemployment checks flowing to the jobless. He said that if elected he would serve just one term and wouldn’t take money from the law firms, financial managers and banks who contribute to treasurer candidates with the hope of landing future business.
The state agriculture commissioner is the primary spokesman for the state’s $70 billion agribusiness industry, but the agency also regulates food, drugs, medical devices, motor fuels and propane, amusement rides, and pesticide licenses.
Guilford County farmer Steve Troxler has held the job since 2005. He faces attorney and accountant Bill McManus, who said he’s also owned family restaurants and worked for a produce packaging company, in the Republican primary.
McManus, of Davidson, describes himself as a Tea Party-inspired Republican who admires Sarah Palin and former President Ronald Reagan. He proposes cutting taxes, reducing regulations and offering tax breaks to companies to increase agricultural employment.
During his tenure, Troxler said, North Carolina has increased food exports to China, which now buys $3 billion worth of farm products. He takes credit for increasing voluntary farmland preservation and establishing a food and drug protection lab that is one of five in the country accredited in both chemical and biological testing.
On the Democratic side, Chatham County cattle farmer and former deputy sheriff Scott Bryant is seeking his party’s nomination against Yadkin County poultry grower Walter Smith, a retired USDA Farm Service Agency official.
Bryant said he would revamp his agency’s legal department into a platoon of farmers’ advocates advising growers on how to battle government regulation. He would dedicate marketing resources to help small, sustainable farms reach institutional food and restaurant buyers.
Smith said he wants to set up a hotline where anyone with problems complying with state farm and food regulations can find advice. He also would have the agency work with companies and universities to encourage future generations of farmers, find more crops that can be grown on smaller acreages, and help smaller farmers become more profitable.
Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, a Democrat, faces no primary opposition. Republicans will select their candidate from among Mike Causey, James McCall, and Richard Morgan.
Causey, of Greensboro, is a former insurance agent and political consultant who failed in three elections between 1992 and 2000 to unseat former Democratic Commissioner Jim Long. Causey complains consumers are both paying too much for health and property insurance and have few choices due to too little competition. He said he would establish a consumer advocate in the department to help consumers resolve disputes with insurers.
James McCall, of Mooresville, is an insurance agency owner who says he would work to reform the state’s complicated insurance regulatory system. He said the lengthy lag before rate increases or cuts are approved means policies sold elsewhere aren’t sold in North Carolina. He also would cut down the size of the state-mandated risk pools that insure autos and beach property.
Richard Morgan is a Moore County insurance broker whose rise to become House co-speaker with Democrat Jim Black in 2003 fractured legislative Republicans. He ran four years ago for state schools superintendent and in 2010 for state Senate. He said he would be a consumer advocate if elected.

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